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India’s Tiger Crisis Cell will not let the big cat be ‘modernized’ out of existence.
Bittu Sahgal has spent many years on the preservation trail.

Biodiversity Threat:
The wide ranges that large predators need to survive are being whittled away by the mega-projects so close to the heart of orthodox economics.

We followed her pug marks on foot for over a kilometre through dusty paths and damp rivulets. The trail suggested that her two cubs, despite myriad distractions, never drifted more than a few metres from the protective reach of mother. By the side of the road, obscured from view, we saw fresh droppings where the feline had stopped to defecate, scratching the earth to leave a momentary ‘I was here’ message in the distinctive manner of tigers. Did the stiff brown bristles belong to a now-departed sambar deer? Or a wild boar perhaps? Only laboratory analysis would provide a conclusive answer.

For the moment we were pleased enough to know that despite all our failures the tiger had managed to survive in yet another forest. It was cold, and a soft mist rose from the ground. Above us the canopy closed in a dense tangle visible only where humans are not. A bushy-tailed male giant squirrel caught our eye where he sat spotlit by a narrow beam in the branch of a large jamun tree. In the silence we could hear the crunch of rodent teeth whittling forest fruit. There were many more squirrels about. Did the whistles and clicks suggest amorous advances... or territorial battles? No biologist could ask for a better sign of forest health than giant squirrels above and tigers below.

I was in the fabled Churna forests of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where 25 per cent of the world’s remaining tigers are found. I was with Valmik Thapar, a friend and colleague who served with me on the Government of India’s Tiger Crisis Cell. We were in search of new tiger-frequented forests to bring under the mantle of Project Tiger. But for once we forgot the tiger crisis and basked in the serenity of nature’s harmony.

The tiger, arguably the world’s most charismatic predator, is at the centre of two related tragedies in India. The first involves the rapid slide of the species towards oblivion; the second the Indian Government’s apathy towards the impending catastrophe. It is ironic that the world’s most densely populated subcontinent should be home to the largest population of surviving tigers. This has less to do with modern conservation objectives than with ancient Indian attitudes towards all living creatures.

Ordinary Indians have an innate reverence for life. They do not demand an ‘eye for an eye’, even when livestock or human lives are lost. The tiger is associated with the Goddess Durga and for millions it would be inconceivable even to consider harming the animal. Likewise, Lord Ganesh, the elephant god, is propitiated in almost every Hindu home. The mouse, the snake, the lion and the peacock are also venerated. But for the modern poacher this living heritage has little significance – and dead tigers mean millions.

At another level the new Indian who has ‘risen above’ the superstitions of nature worship justifies the rape and pillage of the tiger’s home in the name of development. The advent of ‘globalization’ seems to have ushered in an ethic among the upwardly mobile which places material acquisitions at a premium. Outwardly supportive of nature conservation, most corporate executives lobby furiously for construction of new airports, dams, roads, thermal plants and what have you that will cut the heart out of Tigerland. In December 1996, for instance, the Steering Committee of Project Tiger was stunned to hear that the State Government of Andhra Pradesh has approved the construction of a World Bank-financed road which threatens to cut a swathe through the Nagarjunasagar Tiger Reserve. And the West Bengal Govern-ment has proposed an international steamer route between Bangladesh and India which involves dredging and construction of channels through the heart of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve.

The tiger is well and truly caught in a crossfire between habitat destruction and poaching. This is why it is dying out. With more and more forest corridors being disconnected each day, and political will to protect it vanishing as fast as an ice cube in hell, the tiger’s fate seems sealed. But there are still some of us who refuse even to contemplate losing this fight. In our view nature is resilient and the tiger has the capacity to withstand considerable pressure.

The next 1,000 days will be critical. If we do not find a way to restore protection to the tiger and its home, local extinctions will be commonplace by the year 2000.

The 3,650 seizures of all descriptions of dead wildlife across India in just three years are the mere tip of the proverbial iceberg. The tiger has been the worst sufferer of this assault because its bones and other body parts command astronomical prices in international markets. ‘As per my records only one tiger has died this year,’ said the ex-Director of Project Tiger at a now infamous meeting of the Tiger Crisis Cell in the middle of 1995. The gentleman had to retract his statement in the face of incontrovertible evidence we presented, but for almost five years his attitude typified the response of the Indian bureaucracy to the tiger crisis – denial. Like sharks to the kill, poachers, miners, timber merchants and entrepreneurs smelled opportunity in indifference. Driven by economic imperatives from outside India and growing commercial aspirations within, people swooped down on the tiger’s unprotected home. Poison, snares and guns competed with bulldozers, axes and excavators for the wealth of Tigerland.

Those of us protecting the tiger had become complacent. For years only good news trickled out of the tiger reserves. Documentary films and glossy magazines dutifully reported the gains of Project Tiger with images of families of the big cat basking in the security of protected forests. The drift set in with the demise of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. Almost immediately 100,000 hectares of forest land were stripped of protection and diverted to mines, dams, roads and mega-projects. Today more than five times that area has been lost through acts of political largesse – land for votes. Even the most famous wildlife sanctuaries were not spared. The tiger had lost political support.

What little protection still remained by the early 1990s was due to two-decade-old legislation launched by the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (Rajiv’s mother). An autocratic woman, she had rejected World Bank proposals to clear-fell Indian forests. Not one Chief Minister, bureaucrat or businessperson dared cross her path. The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 were her initiatives. But within a year of Rajiv’s death the media were rife with rumours of legislative dilutions, no doubt at the behest of the World Bank, which seeks to commercialize vast parcels of India’s forest land, including tiger forests. But warnings about the tiger-slide fell on deaf ears. Our apprehensions were often met with amusement and disbelief. ‘Why are you exaggerating the situation?’ asked the Field Director of the Kanha Tiger Reserve when I listed seizures from towns right outside his park. But soon depressing stories began emerging with alarming regularity from such distant tiger habitats as Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.

By 1994 the Tiger Cell in Madhya Pradesh had compiled detailed dossiers on poaching gangs, naming the villagers and traders involved, their political connections and modus operandi. Cyanide and other tasteless, odourless toxic substances were being used to poison small water sources in the heat of summer. The massacre was gruesome but effective. One eyewitness reported seeing the corpses of vultures, crows, jackals, rodents and a host of birds. Intended for tigers, these death-traps were taking an indiscriminate toll. I was devastated to learn that some 400 impoverished tribal people, traditionally respectful of nature, had participated in the slaughter for less than five dollars per day!

By the early 1990s TV had made the world more aware of the tiger crisis than were most Indians. International charitable trusts mopped up millions from a sympathetic public. The tiger proved an evocative fund-raising symbol. The Indian Government too bankrolled Project Tiger. If even 50 per cent of such funds ever reached the ‘battlefront’, Panthera tigris might not be facing such a bleak future. But a large chunk was siphoned off by the swollen bureaucracies of both government and the charitable organizations. A significant amount gets misappropriated. I would hazard that not more than ten per cent is spent in the field protecting the big cats. Today there are insufficient funds to feed the riding elephants belonging to anti-poaching squads or even to buy boots for forest guards. Tiger-saving rhetoric continues to outstrip results.

Is there any hope for the Indian tiger? I believe there is. Ironically the real key is not cracking the poaching gangs so much as de-fanging the economists in and out of India for whom tiger forests are mere raw materials for profit. A good start has been made with PK Sen, a good field man, now in charge of Project Tiger. But Sen will need the support of a motivated team of people with a clear-cut mandate from the Prime Minister’s office, for time is running out. By the turn of the century – 1,000 days – his team must cut across 17 Indian states to motivate people and mobilize resources. They must craft an umbrella of protection, beneath which the tiger and the other life-forms that share its abode can be safe. We must convince our current Prime Minister that his predecessor, the late Mrs Gandhi, was right to protect natural India, and that saving tigers is in our best national interest because its forests are also the key to the subcontinent’s water security.

We must work to resurrect ancient Indian values and philosophies which place a greater emphasis on heritage than cash assets. If we fail, the tiger will be lost to the world because India is its last stronghold. And if the tiger goes, with it will vanish the very soul of India.

Bittu Sahgal is an Indian ecologist and activist.

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New Internationalist issue 288 magazine cover This article is from the March 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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